Officials giddy over Obama's promise for infrastructure aid 

Charleston's New Deal

In the musical Annie, the precocious, curly-haired redhead single-handedly ushers in the New Deal by reminding President Franklin Roosevelt that "the sun will come out tomorrow." As part of the New Deal, Roosevelt created 8 million government-funded jobs to get people working during the nation's toughest economic drought. More than 70 years later, a new president is poised to make just such a dramatic investment to prevent the "Great Depression II."

Some aspects of the New Deal involved a shift in Washington's priorities, including the creation of some Alphabet Agencies that are still around today, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration, along with programs like Social Security. But the largest role of the New Deal was to create American jobs. To do that, projects were approved across the country, from paving roads to building schools and community centers. A handful of Charleston's New Deal projects stand as examples today.

Obama's proposal for more than $750 billion in federal aid, including money for infrastructure and other projects could mean a steady paycheck for the 8.4 percent of South Carolinians who are jobless. But for local and state officials, it's an opportunity to get money for dozens of projects that have been given the green light, but have been left unfunded.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley sent a list of more than $1 billion in local projects to the Obama transition team, touting the potential creation of nearly 19,000 new jobs if every local project was funded.

"It's an example of the projects we would be able to develop, bid, get under construction, and substantially complete within two years," Riley says, noting any final decisions on any official request for funding would come from the City Council.

Riley has traveled with other mayors from across the nation to speak with Congressional leaders and Obama himself about the need for a Main Street stimulus to follow the Wall Street and Detroit bailouts last year.

In his more than three decades leading the city, Riley says he's never seen an opportunity like the proposed stimulus plan. Some of the projects the city included in it's list would be more than a decade away without the federal aid.

Leading the projects in Riley's "ready-to-go" list is $78 million for the development of a commuter rail line between Summerville and Charleston. Most of that money would be used to purchase rail cars and improve existing train tracks for commuter use. There's also about $139 million in potential stormwater projects, including $60 million to address the frequent flooding along the Crosstown corridor and $30 million to continue work on Market Street drainage.

There's also $44 million in various park improvements and $24 million for a parking deck to service the recently created Horizon Street redevelopment area. The city is also looking for $25 million for improvements to Morrison Drive (home to the City Paper headquarters).

Riley also included a $263 million school district wish list, including much of the work the district has laid out for its controversial restructuring plan that will close as many as a dozen schools and rehab others to accommodate the shifting student body. That includes more than $100 million to rebuild Buist Academy, Memminger Elementary, and James Simmons Elementary — three schools that district officials consider structurally unsafe.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation, in accordance with infrastructure departments from other states, sent a list of 51 S.C. projects that would be ready-to-go if given stimulus funding. There weren't any direct projects for Charleston County, but there was a $200 million proposal for statewide interstate and road resurfacing. Also, a $140 million dollar effort to widen a dangerous stretch of Highway 17 through Colleton County would benefit a number of commuters who use the route during the work week to travel between Charleston and Beaufort.

Riley is hopeful that the money, if approved, would be issued directly to municipalities and regional governments as opposed to funneling through state agencies.

"That would slow things up and cost more with another layer of bureaucracy," Riley says. "The whole purpose is to get Americans back to work."

The Original New Deal

Scepticism toward this kind of public funding has already cropped up from conservatives, but it's nothing new. In December 1933, a News and Courier editorial stated, "On the whole and in the long run, South Carolina would be a freer, more prosperous commonwealth without these intimate, if seemingly and momentarily profitable relations with the federal government." It's a traditional self-determining frame of mind South Carolina is famous for, but the train was already out of the station at that point.

By 1936, press reports note that as many as 7,000 people in the Charleston region were part of the New Deal's Work Progress Administration (WPA). The work included building construction, road paving, and drainage improvements.

The most recognizable New Deal project in Charleston was the restoration of the Dock Street Theatre. The building had been used in the 1800s as part of the neighboring Planters Hotel. First started under a different program, the Dock Street work was taken over by the WPA early on when other funding dried up.

In a 1940 report, local writer Karen Amrhine noted the WPA's contribution to the arts, and Dock Street in particular, proved its merit. About 80 workers reduced the building to its four walls and then worked to return the theater to its original design. Dock Street reopened in late 1937 with a production of The Recruiting Officer, the theater's first play in 1736.

"Many people would note the false economy of using men and wheelbarrows to work on the city's yacht basin when adequate, appropriate, and timesaving machines were available," Amrihine wrote, referring to charges that WPA workers were "leaf rakers" or "shovel leaners." "But in the area of cultural matters, the (WPA) managed to achieve public appreciation."

There was also the construction of Alhambra Hall in Mt. Pleasant.

Road improvements were a major part of the local WPA work, including improvements to Meeting Street, Camp Road, Montague Avenue, Ashley Hall, and a few roads (along with sidewalk construction) in Mt. Pleasant. There was landscaping at Roper Hospital and "general repairs" at the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston.

It also included things we'd find unheard of in modern Charleston, like malaria drainage systems, improvements to the local tuberculosis camp, and dozens of sewing rooms to make clothes for the needy. The WPA program assisted in the growth of public libraries, including three new branches and eight new school libraries. The program also involved people working in school lunchrooms.

Among the other jobs for WPA workers was the collection of historical records. Dr. Anne King Gregorie, in charge of the effort, said of the workers: "All of whom are sweet, but some dumb." Artists were also hired by the Charleston Museum through WPA funding to paint local scenes. The people were "badly shaken by the depression," noted museum director E. Milby Burton. "I felt I did what I could to help them rehabilitate themselves. We didn't have any scholars, but our people learned fast."

The details of Obama's stimulus plan will have to be hammered out over the next few weeks. As furloughs and layoffs grow in number, there's likely to be ample job seekers ready to work on day one.

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